The New York Philharmonic turned Avery Fisher Hall into a seductive kaleidoscope of sound on Thursday, February 23 with a program consisting of Steven Stucky’s Son et lumière, Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s iconic Pictures at an Exhibition.
Living, breathing American composer Steven Stucky may not be a household name, but he is a familiar face to Philharmonic audiences having promoted new music through the Hear & Now. His Son et lumiére, written in 1988, is an energetic exploration of orchestral color and enthralling rhythmic drive. The traditional orchestral superstars – the strings, woodwinds, and the brass – defer the melody and excited to Stucky’s atypically populated percussion section. Tom-toms, maracas, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, crotales, chimes, celesta dominate the symphony resulting in an excitingly fresh menagerie of hues, images, and pulses. Alan Gilbert conducted with an abundance of bodily contortions that highlighted the uniquely serpentine rhythms of Stucky’s score; he extracted every delicious color, allowing the juices to mingle and marinate throughout Avery Fisher Hall.
The vibrant sounds of Son et lumière were softened by the gossamer texture of Hector Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. With this orchestral song cycle, Berlioz took the very German genre of the liederkreis out of the middle-class parlor rooms and into the concert halls. Theophile Gautier’s texts, full of pastoral love scenes, unknown islands, dead or absent lovers, moonlight, sunlight, and the reflection of the ocean, are a perfect match for Berlioz’s mysterious and ephemeral manipulation of instrumentation.
In this performance, the peerless Joyce DiDonato sang the cycle with her characteristic attention to detail without ever sounding routine. She approaches the cycle as an actor would approach Hamlet’s soliloquies – with dramatic precision, specific intentions, and intense, transformative concentration. “Villanelle” was a little muted, but DiDonato has no issue projecting her lean instrument in the much larger Metropolitan Opera, so I can only imagine that his was an intentional and appropriate approach to the simplest and most endearing song of the evening. In “Absence” she alternated between impassioned and whispered longing; her diminuendo through the repeated plea of “Reviens! Reviens ma bien-aimée” was transcendental. While the mezzo’s opulent and focus singing secure her position as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) singer of her generation, I was mesmerized by what she does in between phrases, bringing the orchestral subtext to the surface with her vivid and varied facial gestures. The Philharmonic supported her with shimmering threads of gold, silver, and ice blue.
Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is the pinnacle of nineteenth century program music. In its original version for the piano, Mussorgsky pushes the instruments to its limits to concoct images as vivid and colorful as St. Basil’s Cathedral. Ravel’s 1922 orchestration adds sundry dimensions to Mussorgsky’s already three-dimensional pictures. This was the energetic climax of the evening with Gilbert’s fearlessly excavation of Mussorgsky and Ravel’s score. The final picture “At the Golden Gate of Cave” was sophisticated, opulent; it bathed Avery Fisher Hall in an aural sea of old world finesse and majesty.